Mon, Apr 22, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Would life be happier without Google?

People had to get by without the search engine giant before it was launched in 1998. But is it possible to live your life — and do your job — without it these days?

By Tim Dowling  /  The Guardian

Be a lot easier to navigate with a smartphone.

Photo: AFP

Halfway through my week without Google, my wife mentions that she would like to go out to see a film that evening, and I agree to deal with the logistics. In what I initially think is an inspired move, I drop by the local cinema on the way home and scribble down all the film times in my notebook. Then my wife insists on going to a different cinema.

“Can I do this by phone?” I ask her. “Is 118 still a thing?”

Turns out it is, and an expensive one: £.50 a call, plus 75p a minute, plus a 55p access charge from my mobile provider. But more than a million people a year still use the service, and it even offers a text facility that answers questions — although you’re essentially just asking someone to Google something for you and text you back, for £.50 a go.

Before I started this experiment, when I tried to imagine what it would be like to take a break from Google, what I was really trying to remember was how my life worked all those years before it started.

Google was founded in 1998. Thinking back to the mid-90s, I dimly recall visiting libraries in the course of my work as a journalist, and having fat envelopes of press cuttings delivered to my door. I remember tracking down Meat Loaf’s out-of-print autobiography in a secondhand bookshop the day before interviewing him. But often, I never found the answers I was looking for. Instead, I adjusted the questions. I remember factual disputes in pubs and at dinner parties that simply never got settled. I remember finding my own way around town. I remember learning straightforward repairs from books instead of videos. I remember doing all of these things, but I don’t really remember how it felt.

To get Google out of your life is a big undertaking. Google Maps doesn’t just get you to places; it drives many of the other apps you use, including Uber. Google owns YouTube. Google controls my thermostat. For the purposes of this experiment, I am simply avoiding the maps, the search engine, the browser and YouTube. I am going to keep using e-mail.

There are, of course, other browsers, search engines and map apps out there, but I am not trying to find substitutes. I am trying to do without.

GOOGLE ON THE BRAIN

My reasons have little to do with Google’s monopoly on searching, or its free and easy way with my data. I am worried it is doing something to my brain. Actually, I am worried that Google is my brain.

In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr describes familiar symptoms while trying to absorb text of any length.

“My concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread and begin to look for something else to do,” Carr writes.

The book’s main contention is that our highly plastic brains are being rewired by the demands of online existence: an increased knack for mental multitasking comes at the price of our ability to think deeply. Google, he says, is a huge part of this.

“Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction,” he says.

The Shallows was published in 2010, and it is unlikely anything has improved since then. Carr maintains that the rise of the smartphone, along with social media, has magnified the problem considerably.

“A decade ago, you could still make a distinction between ‘online’ and ‘offline,’” he tells me in an e-mail. “We spent a lot of time on the Internet, but we didn’t live there. Now, we do. Today, essentially, people are always online.”

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